Plymouth State University

Plymouth State University graduating students listen to speakers during Saturday’s commencement exercises for the classes of 2020 and 2021.  

PLYMOUTH — Plymouth State University held commencement exercises Saturday for two classes affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the keynote address delivered by one of the medical experts who directed the response to it.

The exercises, the 150th in Plymouth State’s history, were conducted for the first time on the lawn of the Mary Lyon residence hall.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, it changed how PSU students learned and prevented that year’s graduates from attending commencement.

On Saturday, they belatedly celebrated.

“What a year it has been,” said President Donald L. Birx. “It reminds me of the song “School’s Out,” by Alice Cooper.

Since last March, “we’ve all led altered lives,” he said, but the members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 always “kept your eyes on the prize and supported each other along the way.”

The pandemic forced everyone to wear face coverings, and graduates had to test negative for COVID-19 to be able to attend the ceremony, according to the school’s website.

Nonetheless, Plymouth State perseveres, Birx said. After 150 years, “here we are, stronger than ever.”

That theme of resilience was repeated by several speakers on Saturday, including Dr. Deborah L. Birx, who received an honorary doctorate in public service from her brother, the school’s president.

President Birx, who referred to the former White House coronavirus response coordinator as “Deb,” said his sister has an impressive record of accomplishments. Their parents call her “The Colonel,” her former rank in the U.S. Army.

Dr. Birx showed a sense of humor, too, recounting how when she visited Plymouth State and other colleges and universities to talk about COVID-19 safety, students would recognize her and say “here come the olds.” Then, she said, “everyone’s masks got tighter.”

She said she had intended to make resilience the theme of her address and was pleasantly surprised that two speakers who preceded her — Riley Drew, class secretary of 2020, and Madelyn McCluskey, class vice president of 2021 — emphasized it as well.

“Resilience is no longer an abstract concept to each of us,” she said. The pandemic showed the value of flexibility “and that we’re stronger as a team, a diverse team.”

The graduates “have the ability to listen that none of us had 15 months ago,” she said. They have not just survived, but prospered.

“You learned how to respond to each other with grace and understanding,” Birx said. The classes of 2020 and 2021 are “emotionally aware” in a way that those who graduated before them have not been, she said.

Drew, from the Class of 2020, said, “I know this is not the graduation most of us dreamt about having,” but COVID-19 has given the classes of 2020 and 2021 stories they’ll be sharing with their children and grandchildren about how “we graduated during a pandemic.”

Getting to graduation wasn’t always easy or simple, McCluskey said, but it proved “just how resilient” PSU students can be.

She reminded graduates that “at the end of the day,” their lives will be measured by how they’ve treated people, not what they accomplished on their “life list.”

“It’s been an honor to be your friend,” McCluskey said. “Congratulations. We made it.”

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